The Common Good
June 2008

Finding My Religion

by Amy Green | June 2008

Young Christians -- mainline and evangelical, Catholic and Protestant -- are seeking new ways to connect their faith to action ... and in doing so [drum roll] change the world.

How should Christians interpret the Bible? It was just the sort of weighty question this group of beer drinkers likes to mull every week at a dimly lit Gainesville pub not far from the University of Florida campus, in their “theology on tap” meetings. “Prayerfully,” was one answer. “As Jesus intended,” was another. On the sound system The Police sang.

“I think the Bible is meant to be struggled with,” said 25-year-old Maria Carter, office manager for Gainesville’s Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ Student Center. She grew up Catholic but now considers herself a Christian who is searching. She wore a navy cap cocked to one side, a piercing in one brow, and a tattoo on her wrist.

Heading up the “theology on tap” meetings is 23-year-old Rusty Poulette, a philosophy major at Santa Fe Community College who someday hopes to open his own nonprofit, a Christian whose coming-of-age may resemble many his age. He grew up Catholic and attended a Presbyterian congregation in high school but pulled away from church in college when he developed a passion for social justice.

He landed internships at youth-oriented nonprofits in St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach and eventually found the social justice-oriented Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ Student Center, where he now works as program director. He’s in charge of “theology on tap” every Tuesday, a dinner and discussion group every Wednesday, and a small contemplative service every Sunday. His forearms are inked with tattoos, including the letters “o” and “m” on two fingers. He doesn’t rule out divinity school in his future.

“It seems to me like conversation is more likely to shape what young people believe, the conversation experience as opposed to simply believing the doctrine of their denomination or what their pastor has to say,” mused Poulette before the meeting. He enjoys punk music, plays drums in a piano rock band, and drives a beige Hyundai papered in a half-dozen bumper stickers with sayings such as “Teach Tolerance” and “My God Loves Your God.” He said, “A lot of Christians I come across are more likely to say things like, ‘I heard someone say this but I don’t know what I think about that, and what do you think?’”

Poulette is among the Christian leaders of tomorrow, 20- and 30-somethings who, like every generation before them, are reshaping the faith.

These Christians, of which evangelicals are a large part, are making it more diverse, drawing less from traditional sources such as Sunday services and turning instead to friends, online social sites, celebrity pop culture, and podcasts for their spirituality. Often they are cynical of today’s church leaders but eager to probe, discuss, and learn from their teachings. Politically they are less motivated by issues such as abortion and homosexuality and moved instead by environmentalism, genocide in Africa, and poverty. Above all they are devout, together quietly amassing loose movements such as the emerging church and new monasticism and nudging congregations and denominations to rethink worship and what it means to be Christian.

The emerging church, as it’s called by proponents, has swept the Web in only a few years through blogs and online social sites and spawned a growing niche of books and resources. The aim is to help Christians live and worship more authentically and make church more relevant today. At the heart is a careful, probing deliberation of what it means to be Christian, and while proponents may welcome innovation they hold to traditional beliefs and show a zeal for evangelism.

But beyond worship, in this election year these Christians may leave their mark on Washington, too, through their propensity to eschew traditional church leaders for a diversity of other sources for spirituality. Rather than James Dobson these Christians are turning to Rob Bell, David Crowder, friends, and online groups. It may be this diversity that split their vote and helped Sen. John McCain take the Republican nomination rather than Mike Huckabee.

“There are so many voices in today’s saturated communications market,” said David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, a research organization specializing in spiritual issues that’s based in Ventura, California. “We’re going to find our path not necessarily through … the same kind of televangelists that our parents have had. So when you look at something like the election, this is the perfect example of the 12 or 15 tribes that have their own candidates, and yet it’s harder and harder to find a mainstream candidate that fits the beliefs of all those tribes.”

 

TODAY’S YOUNG Christians were reared during the materialistic, fast-paced 1980s and 1990s and today are immersed in TV, music, the Internet, cell phones, e-mail, and more. In this age of what-are-you-trying-to-sell-me cynicism, many are searching for something more authentic, and some are finding it in the emerging church and new monasticism, a movement that mixes evangelicalism with Catholicism and borrows from the ancient traditions of monks. These Christians often steer away from traditional worship, and many congregations are responding with contemplative and Taizé services with meditation and prayer. Some are taking up together in house churches and intentional communities, sharing a roof or commune and the common cause of living faithfully. Some 70 million adults have at least experimented with house churches, Kinnaman said.

“What many of us are trying to do is rediscover the Christian faith as a way of life,” said Brian McLaren, a leader of the loose network called the Emergent Village and chair of the board for Sojourners. A theologian and author, he has been recognized by Time as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals. “After all the scandals of the televangelists and the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church and the sense that our religious community sold out to the Republican Party through the Religious Right, I think we feel that so much has proven itself bogus that we’re searching to connect with the real taproot of our faith, the real underground stream of our faith, and these practices are becoming ways of tapping into the depth and history and spirituality of our faith.”

These Christians don’t share a need with their parents to defend denominational territories. To them there is no Catholic vs. Protestant. Instead they want to explore, and their house churches and intentional communities are part of a broader decentralization of church and a new emphasis on the individual believer, Kinnaman said.

Reared during the communications age, these Christians also show a greater awareness of the world, said Rev. Romal Tune, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Clergy Strategic Alliances, a social justice-oriented consulting organization for nonprofits and other groups. These Christians are connecting online through social sites such as Facebook and MySpace and using scripture to support their causes on social issues, whether it’s for a more equitable minimum wage or a better stewardship of the environment. They are interested in different issues. In one Barna survey, 35 percent of young born-again Christians said they considered homosexuality a “major problem” facing America, compared to 59 percent of their parents and grandparents. Sixty-one percent of young born-agains considered illegal immigration a “major problem,” while 70 percent of their parents and grandparents thought the same.

“A lot of people are thinking outside the box in terms of how to reach people in society, whereas traditionally it’s been Sunday morning and it’s been in the context of a traditional church,” Tune said. “The church will in 20 years not be defined by a building that people attend for worship on Sunday morning, but by how Christians treat people in the world. You will be able to walk into the community, and before you see a church you will know that the work of the church is taking place in the community.”

How indelible are these changes? Kinnaman recognizes the activism of these Christians but wonders how deep it runs. While they may care about a broader gamut of issues such as poverty in Africa and global warming, few do more than buy a wristband or T-shirt, he said. Bob Wenz, former vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a professor of biblical and Christian thought at The King’s College and Seminary at a branch campus in Colorado Springs, believes the changes are among many both big and small that have swept Christianity in the past five decades.

Wenz compares these Christians to the hippies of the 1960s who were drawn to more contemplative worship, and he sees the emerging church and new monasticism as among the many movements that have come and gone over time. Nonetheless, others see a deeper response to what they consider a long-held “us-vs.-them” mentality, an approach that inspired fear and drove some Christians to take protective stands on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

“I think the previous generation has always seen the world in terms of us vs. them,” McLaren said. “It’s a binary world. Capitalists vs. communists. The West vs. Islam. In this new context we’re starting to realize that kind of binary us-vs.-them thinking is actually part of the problem. We have to recognize that we are in the midst of a very turbulent time of change. What I’m most hopeful about is that this new spirit among Christians will raise new questions rather than just choose different answers to the old questions.”

 

LAST SUMMER Poulette traveled to the village in east-central France called Taizé, where an ecumenical monastic community of more than 100 brothers now inspires the Taizé services that have become popular among many young Christians. It was a pilgrimage shared by other Christians from across the globe, and there Poulette met many his age who share his feelings for the faith. Frustration with a perceived reluctance to innovation. Enthusiasm for a probing deliberation of Christianity. Ambition for interfaith reconciliation among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He found the journey life-changing, “the most informative thing I’ve ever done for my Christian faith.”

In March he led nine members of the Presbyterian and Disciples of Christ Student Center to Tucson, Arizona, where they met with the leaders of ecumenical ministries dedicated to immigration issues, activists who provide lifesaving water and medical care in the desert, for example. They saw a 40-foot metal wall dividing the United States from Mexico and learned that many illegal immigrants who are picked up are bused back to Mexico or left in the desert with dangerous medical conditions such as dehydration.

The experience dominated the discussion at the following “theology on tap” meeting. About 10 turned out. Among them were a University of Florida English major and a manager of a Christian bookstore. Those who participated in the trip compared the outreach to the illegal but moral service Christians provided to African Americans in the late 1800s as they fled slavery through the underground railroad. Poulette noted the emphasis in the Bible on hospitality because of the harsh conditions for travelers through the desert. The group complained of the nexus between Christians and political conservatives, who they felt have taken the issue of immigration in a nonbiblical direction.

“A criminal act isn’t necessarily un-Christian. It’s a Christian act that sometimes is deemed criminal,” Carter spoke up. “I don’t see how Christians can defend our border policy on a Christian basis. I would like to hear it.”

Many at the table nodded. Some took another gulp of beer. This is what church looks like these days.

Amy Green was an Orlando, Florida-based freelance writer specializing in faith, ethics, and social issues when this article appeared.

Changing Evangelicals

Younger evangelicals and “born-agains” are no longer predictably in the camp of the Religious Right.

• Among 20- and 30-something born-again Christians, 60 percent say climate change is a major concern, compared with 55 percent of adults age 40 and older.

• Two years ago, 55 percent of white evangelicals younger than 30 called themselves Republicans. Now, just 40 percent do.

• More than 60 percent of evangelicals under 30 say it’s worth the cost to do more about environmental pollution and climate change. Only 52 percent of older evangelicals think so.

• 18-to-29-year-old born-again Christians are 15 percent more likely to find homosexuality morally acceptable than are their elders.

• 60 percent of young evangelicals believe the government should work to redistribute wealth more evenly.

Sources: The Barna Group; The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; The 2006 Baylor Survey on Religion.

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